On the second day of a recent Parisian holiday, my smartwatch stopped working. Paris is a place where you must be philosophical about such things so I decided it was a sign to enjoy the moment, to stop counting steps and seconds. I turned off my phone data, too, ignoring my map in favour of wandering aimlessly, led by the lure of a quaint cobblestoned lane here or a whimsical roofline there. Then, suddenly, I felt something new in this city where time can seem to stand still: a jolt of vibratingly modern energy.
“It’s not a place that changes enormously,” fashion designer Martin Grant told me when I next returned to Paris, keen to further explore the 3rd arrondissement that encompasses the North Marais. Grant has lived and worked in the 3rd for 15 years. “But in the past five years, I’ve really sensed an area in transition.”
The buildings may be ancient (Baron Haussmann, who made over much of Paris in the 19th century, barely made inroads here) but they house cutting-edge design, wi-fi-friendly cafés that brew great coffee and Parisians plugged into a world of possibilities. It feels happening and you can’t help but want to be a part of it. Here’s how to spend a day getting in on the action.
The inspiring mood is set at Place des Vosges, on the south-east edge of the 3rd. Dating back to 1605, it was the city’s first urban square and is still a vision of loveliness – think jaunty brick-and-stone townhouses and a garden of clipped linden trees – as much as one of civic optimism. Place des Vosges brought high society to the Marais. Paris was entering an age of globalisation, as explorers trekked back with stories and flavours from exotic continents; tea, chocolate and coffee were embraced by the day’s taste-makers.
Speaking of which, it’s breakfast time. At Fragments (76 rue des Tournelles), the cappuccinos are as good as you’ll find in Italy – and the Australian-inspired avocado on toast is up there, too. Incidentally, the famed 17th- century courtesan Ninon de l’Enclos lived on this street, where she held a salon for her many admirers. With cafés yet to exist, salons allowed Parisians to socially connect and inhale intoxicating new ideas along with energising brews.
A popular salon guest was sparkling epistolary star Madame de Sévigné. Born on Place des Vosges, she later lived in what is now the Musée Carnavalet (carnavalet.paris.fr). The charming museum of Parisian history is closed until 2019 but walk around this block and those to the west, north of rue des Francs Bourgeois (the dividing line between Lower and Upper Marais), to admire the mansions of the French Renaissance. Many of these buildings, ransacked during the Revolution, are now museums, such as the exquisite Musée Cognacq-Jay devoted to the 18th century. Just north is Musée Picasso Paris, worth a visit for the magnificent staircase alone.
By the industrial 1800s, the district had reforged itself as a working-class enclave with manufacturing workshops crowding courtyards and artisanal ateliers lining the skinny streets. Despite its dilapidated state, the Marais was saved from demolition in the 1960s. By the setting of the century, the wealthy had moved back, albeit in a less showy way – these are the bobos (bourgeois-bohemians), after all. The Upper Marais remains an area of transformation where old-school artisans rub shoulders with avant-garde artists; where old townhouses are being renovated, the ornate coach doors often painted optimistic pops of colour.
Stroll over to boulevard Beaumarchais, where bobos shop for groceries at Maison Plisson, fashion at Leon & Harper and everything else at Merci, a converted wallpaper factory where the wideranging merchandise is dizzyingly good (fortify yourself in the basement juice bar). “Merci was the game changer,” says Lindsey Tramuta, author of The New Paris. “It represents the modern mood of Paris: energetic, dynamic, entrepreneurial.” Tramuta cites Boot Café (19 rue du Pont aux Choux; +33 6 26 41 10 66), the highly Instagrammable eatery behind a vintage cobbler’s façade, as another turning point. “It helped make the 3rd a hub where people want to hang out. And social media has been huge for attracting a new audience.”
Boot Café, around the corner from Merci, is on a street studded with independent designers. “Artisanal fashion is a great fit for this area, which has traditionally been one of manufacturing and supplying details like buttons and zippers,” says journalist and handbag designer Kasia Dietz, who leads shopping tours of the area she has lived in for eight years. “Many designers have set up shop here because the cheap rent lets them have their atelier in the basement. This is exciting because how else can you meet the actual designer?” Stop in at Anika Lena Skärström and Koshka Mashka.
The world has discovered the 3rd, which has returned the favour in the form of varied dining. “It’s not hard to find something different,” says Tramuta, “which is not the case in every district.” Take lunch at the bustling market Marché des Enfants Rouges on rue de Bretagne, choosing between Lebanese, Japanese, Moroccan and vegetarian. Also consider Argentine-inspired Carbón, Mexican at Candelaria (52 rue de Saintonge; +33 1 42 74 41 28) and Californian fare at Wild & The Moon.
Tradition isn’t totally off the menu, though; afternoon tea options are as Gallic as they come here. Buy rose- and-raspberry cream puffs at Popelini, salted-caramel macarons at Pierre Hermé and shortbread biscuits at Poilâne. Jacques Genin (jacquesgenin.fr) is the go-to for luscious hot chocolate and delicate pastries, while Grand Café Tortoni (45 rue de Saintonge; +33 1 42 72 28 92), a glorious reimagining of the famed Belle Époque café, serves steaming pots of tea accompanied by melt-in-the-mouth madeleines.
Spend the afternoon in aesthetic mode, shopping at Empreintes for local arts and crafts, Alix D. Reynis (alixdreynis.com) for delicate porcelain and jewellery pieces, Ofr. Bookshop (20 rue Dupetit-Thouars) for artistic tomes and Papier Tigre for witty stationery.
Next, stop by Le Carreau du Temple, a 19th-century market that is a marvel of glass and iron, to check out the latest pop-up exhibition. You’re standing on the old grounds of the Knights Templar, master builders who drained the Marais (Old French for marsh) in the 12th century and nurtured a community of craftsmen. So it’s fitting that the Musée des Arts et Métiers, a gem of a museum dedicated to technological innovation, is nearby. Devote at least an hour here, admiring Foucault’s pendulum and some of the earliest planes, which hang spectacularly from the vaulted ceilings of a medieval church.
As the sun sets, zigzag the winding streets to the south, noting the eclectic patchwork of buildings. Some are sturdy in old stone, others caked in plaster; some slope precariously; others reveal old shop signs proclaiming former lives; all smell dank and musty with the infusion of past dreams. They tell the story of a district with a history of ups and downs. The oldest house in Paris is at 51 rue de Montmorency. Suitably, it was built by an alchemist, who turned base metals into magic.
Order a spritz and Venetian-style tapas in the front bar of Hôtel National des Arts et Métiers, with its modern melange of textures contrasting with the view of a blackened Gothic church.
It’s this clash of history that is the essence of the 3rd, as is nearby restaurant Derrière, the perfect dinner destination. Nestled behind a coach door and leafy courtyard, some of the structure dates from the district’s 16th- century heyday. The building crumbled during the Revolution, after which it was turned into a sweatshop then redesigned as a rabbit hole of a restaurant. Diners eat among bookshelves and beds, and the private-club-like smoking room is accessed via a vintage armoire. It’s an astonishing new life for the mansion in which King Henri IV’s mistress and fiancée, Gabrielle d’Estreés, once lived. You can’t help but muse on what might have been if she hadn’t died before their wedding: no line of Louis kings, no Marie Antoinette, arguably no Revolution. The Marais would have remained an aristocratic playground, with fewer nooks to explore. It would be more beautiful but far less interesting.
With that in mind, you could weave your way into the wee hours by venturing into quirky bars such as speakeasy-style Little Red Door. But the ultimate way to cap off the day is with a nightcap at Les Bains, the Belle Époque bathhouse turned iconic ’80s nightclub turned glamorous hotel. Mingling with the spirits of Marcel Proust, Mick Jagger and history’s hottest supermodels? Only in the cocktail of the 3rd.
Photography by: Joann Pai